Although the Charlatans started out in the West Midlands and were initially associated with the “Madchester” scene, their spiritual home is the pretty market town of Northwich, Cheshire. The formative lineup decamped here after recruiting resident singer Tim Burgess from the Electric Crayons, beginning the journey towards becoming one of Britain’s most enduring bands. Although they haven’t played here since 1990, they have pulled the stops out for their return.
A 10-day Charlatans “takeover” sees events ranging from an exhibition of memorabilia to public interviews. Specially picked bands are playing at the Salty Dog pub, and the Charlatans’ favourite chippy, the Seafarer, even adapts the band’s Up to Our Hips album title for their Up to Our Chips banner. Echo and the Bunnymen did something a bit like this in 1984, when their Crystal Day coaxed fans to cycle around Liverpool on a route shaped like a rabbit’s head – but it’s certainly unusual to see a small town being invaded by armies of followers in “North by Northwich” T-shirts.
The first of the band’s four nights at the Memorial Court – from where they were once banned after causing the stage to sink – is different, too. Because the shows are going to vary each night, songs appear from deep down the well. Bird was last played in 2010 and the defiant I Never Want An Easy Life has only been played once in 22 years, while the new, sweetly melodic Totally Eclipsing and Indefinitely in Your Debt are unveiled for the first time. This career-spanning setlist settles into their trademark wistful euphoria.
Since they were last here, they have endured the deaths of two members, an imprisonment and a nervous breakdown, but they have emerged as an indefatigable unit, musically and personally solid. Songs such as the thunderous One to Another hinge on the musical collisions between guitarist Mark Collins and Hammond organist Tony Rogers and the fearsome, almost northern soul rhythm section of bassist Martin Blunt and former Verve drummer Pete Salisbury (in for the late Jon Brookes, whose drum kit features touchingly in the exhibition).
Burgess, meanwhile, is more talisman than frontman. Surely the only 50-year-old British male who can sport a peroxide version of the bob haircut modelled by Joanna Lumley in The New Avengers, and look fantastic, he never stops dancing and repeatedly raises an arm in the air to galvanise the crowd. Several songs – Come Home Baby, North Country Boy – are uncannily suited for the occasion, and the ageless singer touches his heart as artist and audience yell the “I’m coming home!” line in an ecstatic Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over.
Talking in Tones (2015) and Different Days (2017) are moodier, channelling Burgess’s love of New Order. Other songs offer uplifting, psychedelic soul, and a storming Let the Good Times Be Never Ending lies somewhere between Brian Auger and the Trinity and Sly and the Family Stone. By the time the set ends – as do numerous Charlatans shows – with the surging Sproston Green, named after a place near Northwich, the crowd are going crazy, and the town’s once bustling high street will receive a much-needed boost from the extra footfall. Why don’t bands do this sort of thing more often?
- At Memorial Court, Northwich (16, 17 and 18 May, sold out); then the Great Estate festival, Cornwall, 2 June. Then touring.